His Excellency John Ralston Saul
May 30, 2003
I want to thank you for the great honour you do me with this honorary degree. And I want to tell you how excited I am to be back in Sudbury.
My friends tell me that I'm always rambling on about the north, both the near north and the far north. That's probably because I feel good here; I feel at home.
Last autumn, when the Governor General and I were here, what struck me was how Sudbury had reinvented itself – and how much this university has been central to the reinvention. I saw a series of elements which, if taken positively and together, suggest that this University and this region can be on the crest of the wave of Canadian evolution.
One personal indicator for me was the enthusiastic and efficient way in which Sudbury joined the national movement of French for the Future / Le Français Pour l'Avenir. Your President, Judith Woodsworth, is also the national President of FFF. And Gratien Allaire did an excellent job of organizing the local conference. That gathering, held here, brought together Francophone and French immersion university students, and will do so again next year. They were put into contact with thousands of other students like themselves, spread out across 14 cities all over Canada. And now we see to what extent that gathering and alliance between Francophones and immersion students have strengthened your community and given it a new image in the minds of Canadians with other backgrounds.
I've often said that Canada was – and is – built on a deep, triangular foundation which is Aboriginal, Francophone and Anglophone. Deep because it goes back more than 400 years. Wave after wave of immigrants have come and, like new floors in a great complex building, they have built themselves upon and into this triangular foundation.
The result is that great architectural complexity which makes Canadian civilization so unusual. Most societies – in the 19th Century tradition – are proud to be monolithic. What makes Canada so interesting is that it is profoundly non-monolithic.
This is by no means a widely-held vision of society. On the contrary, it is an experiment. An attempt to imagine human relationships differently.
Yes, each of us can be Aboriginal or Francophone or Anglophone, to take the case of the triangle. That particularity is essential. But to embrace fully what it is to be Anglophone, we must also see ourselves in some way as Aboriginal and Francophone. And that is true for the other two. That is the true nature of our complexity. We are, each of us, much more a mix of the other two than we realize.
I say all of this because Sudbury and Laurentian are almost perfect illustrations of the Canadian triangular foundation.
Of course there are both positive and negative aspects to a complex society. One could say that for much of the 20th century in Canada, this complexity has been mostly negative. The triangle was in place, but each side considered the other two to be a problem. The Aboriginals were marginalized and the Francophones mistreated. The Anglophones were frustrated because they did not belong to a more monolithic society. Each of the three groups survived by erecting walls to protect itself from the other two.
Much has changed since then. It began in earnest during the 1970s. But when we have been forced to live on the defensive for more than 50 years, we cannot expect to transform our complexity into something more positive overnight. It's not that simple.
But now, it seems to me, that there are strong signs of your community increasingly seeing this triangular relationship as a great positive. The old defensive mechanisms, which made real cooperation between the three communities so difficult, are changing into something much more creative.
And this university is the key to that positive view of a society constructed upon 3 pillars. Think of the impact of 30,000 graduates over 40 years. Look at the new Northern Ontario Medical School. A quarter Francophone. A program which is the result of consultations with the Aboriginal people. The development of a northern concept of health, including a concentration on the realities of isolation.
That faculty is extremely important because it focuses on health in the north; it is northern in its very design. But perhaps even more importantly, it demonstrates that the north is now ready to adopt the long-term view that it is at the centre of its own affairs. It is rejecting those old models in which it was seen as a source of resources to be exploited for the south, at the mercy of wildly-fluctuating markets; it is rejecting the old idea of communities isolated from each other.
Personally, I came away very stimulated from my visit to the north last year. I saw a region transforming itself into a place where citizens – as much if not more than in any other part of Canada – are aware of the future, of what it means to live here, of what it will take to stay.
The first hint of what has been happening was probably your success in restoring Sudbury's ecology. It was as though the people and the land had made a pact, as though you had said to yourselves, "we are not here simply to exploit resources, we live here and we are here to stay."
I should tell you that I have observed the same phenomenon here and there across the north – what I call near north – from Haida Gwaii, in the Pacific, to communities in Newfoundland.
Personally, I have great faith in the northern imagination, in your capacity to bring some direction to the debate that is going on elsewhere in Canada.
The south may still think of the north in hinterland terms. And that is a real problem for Canada. But the north, increasingly, is thinking of itself in its own terms – centered on itself. And that is good for all of use. We cannot conceive Canada as a whole if we, as a northern nation, treat the north as a mere extension of the south.
One of the reasons I think you are now succeeding in thinking of the country as north centered is that the fundamental triangle of Aboriginal, Francophone and Anglophone is beginning to function as a concept of the whole, and not simply as three separate parts.
Of course, the idea of each community is important. But Canadians are very good at inhabiting multiple personalities. You can both remain within your communities and – at the same time- be beyond them, building this new, broader idea of the north.
You, graduates, I know that over the years you have heard many pessimistic views of your possible future here. I believe that much of that pessimism is just tired, old rhetoric: the result of southern based hinterland rhetoric. It produces self-fulfilling prophesies.
You would do better to think of this university as a very original, cutting edge ship on the crest of the Canadian wave. Aboriginal peoples are making a rapid and fascinating come back – in spite of many lingering problems. They – you – are again becoming central to the future idea of Canada. And Aboriginals have an essential, central role at Laurentian.
French minorities – yes – face some problems of assimilation. And yet they – you – have never been stronger as a community, have never been so politically and economically strong.
And Anglophones have never been so bilingual –from a few thousand a few years to more than 3 million today across Canada. And Anglophones have never been so excited about making the north the centre of a social idea and not jut the hinterland of the south.
What I am trying to tell you, graduates, is, "Don't leave!" Do not think that the purpose of graduation is to spend your life somewhere else. You have everything you need right here to continue riding the crest of the wave. There is room here to build a life full of originality, a life you can fashion after your own desires.
And this university, you are not leaving it behind. It will always be yours. Laurentian may very well become a nexus of regional and even national importance. As for French and English, only you and the University of Ottawa are capable of accommodating both Francophones and Anglophones so easily. That in itself is enough to give you a national vocation. As a community, you must seize this opportunity, this destiny.
Furthermore, Laurentian University is one of only a few universities to have understood the important role Aboriginal communities will play in the Canada of the future.
I realize there will always be tensions – arguments – between the various communities over percentages of budgets and so on.
Well, that's life in Canada. But don't be distracted – by those details of daily life – away from the larger project, the exciting project which I see developing here and there across the north. The north as the centre of itself. And therefore the north as a conception of the whole of Canada.
You graduates are part of that. To graduate is to have a first major success in your individual lives. You should be proud.
I am proud to be receiving this honorary doctorate in your company. This is a bond which links me to you and both of us to this university and this community. You have already demonstrated that you can succeed here, at this university that is becoming more and more sure of itself, and justifiably so.